How all occasions do inform against me,
and spur my dull revenge.
Hamlet is much performed; sometimes people argue that it is performed too often, that repetition dulls its power and that only when stars can enliven it should it be produced. Recently, London has seen such star turns from Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Sheen (neither successful) and soon Andrew Scott is to have his turn as the Danish prince.
But now playing at Stratford Upon Avon, in the RSC’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre, is Simon Godwin’s thrilling, gripping and splendidly alive revival of Hamlet. I have seen more intellectual versions, more spectacular versions, more lyrical versions of this play, but Godwin’s production is a fresh, insightful and completely compelling take on the well known tale. Most importantly it contains the best cast I have seen assembled for Hamlet – every person makes the most of every role – and the characterisations are rooted firmly in the text.
Godwin’s interpretation of the events in Elsinore completely makes sense and fascinates at the same time. How often does one have pause to think about what kind of a monarch Hamlet’s real father was? How often does one think about whether Gertrude loved Claudius before she married Hamlet’s father? What if Horatio was in love with Hamlet, who did not reciprocate, but understood and placed trust and faith in his friend? What if Hamlet’s assessment of Polonius as “a foolish prating knave” was spot on? What if the Ghost was real to more than just Hamlet and Horatio?
These – and many more enlightening ideas – inform Godwin’s Hamlet. He invests his Norway with an unnamed African sensibility, no more or less inappropriate than, say, setting the play in a mental asylum, a modern day palace or a bleak dystopian fascist regime. Except that the African sensibility comes with an inbuilt acceptance of the supernatural, a ready and easy palette for the story-telling culture which underpins the critical role of the travelling Players, and a familiar notion of military monarchy, land grabs and uneasy diplomacy with other nations, especially England.
All of this works for Hamlet.
This is not a case of a director seeking to impose a vision on the text or a case of a director unequal to the task of telling the story cleanly and beautifully. This is not a case of a director who needs to resort to superstar casting or dubious special effects to find a way to make Shakespeare sing. No.
This is a director whose sole focus is illumination of the text, strength of characterisation, comprehension of language and, most happily, revelatory attention to detail. Everything that occurs on stage is connected to everything else; the design seamlessly supports and enhances the action. There are no odd moments or incomprehensible touches. There has never been a Hamlet quite like this and there probably never will be another.
Central to Godwin’s Hamlet is Paapa Essiedu, the first black actor to the play the title role in the history of the RSC, but, more importantly, a wonderfully skilled actor, easily capable of the agonies and ecstasies of the part. His is a youthful prince (Essiedu is 25 but plays younger), a thinker certainly but perhaps not an intellectual, impetuous, agile, whip smart (his accusatory interrogation of Guildenstern is worthy of Poirot; his observation of the movement behind a tapestry screen in Ophelia’s room determines his assault of her) but riven with indecision, uncertainty and the grief that comes with the loss of an adored parent.
Essiedu sparkles like a diamond, brilliant and sharp. His soliloquies are beautifully delivered, carefully tracking his processes, his thoughts, his inner heartbreak; they come across as almost musical interludes, as if he played his own tune to see how it sounded. His wit is fiery and aggressive (his haranguing of Polonius is unrelenting) and the start and finish of his “antic disposition” clear enough. That may be an act, but the mental stresses of this Prince are otherwise obvious. Subtle and sure, he unpeels his Hamlet, inexorably seeking vengeance and losing himself and all of his line along the way.
Laertes brings out his warrior, Ophelia his lover, Horatio his loyalty, Polonius his ire, Gertrude his incomprehension, Claudius his loathing, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern his cockiness, Osric his contempt, the Player King his admiration and the Ghost, his uncertainty, fear and resolve. All facets spin and swim as Essiedu’s fractured soul strives to come to grips with his mother’s marriage to his Uncle.
All the while Essiedu gives full value to Shakespeare’s words. No matter how arcane or obscure the phrase, the meaning is always clear. The famous phrases and speeches are all approached freshly, as if you had never heard them before. Essiedu has that rare ability to sound utterly spontaneous and still give a measured delivery which packs a punch and is as complex and important as an Einstein equation.
Physically, his is a Hamlet of boundless energy. The scenes with the Ghost are tempered with fear and horror, the attack on Ophelia ghastly and frightening, the murder of Polonius impetuous and fevered, the egging on of the Players gleeful, but tinged with malevolence, the fight by Ophelia’s grave, brutal, and fired by passion, the final reckoning with Laertes suffused with an edge-of-the-seat realism and regret. The notion of a tattoo of his father’s face on his perfectly proportioned torso is inspired. He swashes and buckles, thinks and sighs, darts and delivers. Mercurial and magnetic, Essiedu gives the part a modern edge and a philosophical, ancient centre.
There are other actors who may have been better, individualistic Hamlets, but Essiedu is the best Hamlet for the production he is in than anyone I have ever seen. He takes energy and impetus from all around him, as well as giving energy endlessly, and all around him bounce off it, make him better, test him and propel him.
The result is magical and completely, overwhelmingly engaging.
There are three aspects to Gertrude: the regal, the maternal, and the carnal. Tanya Moodie gives each aspect equal measure and is a sensational Gertrude. She conveys the clear impression of having been Queen a long time; her bearing and stature is well practised. Her bond with Hamlet is sincere and heartfelt, so the Closet scene is very powerful. Moodie’s Gertrude sees the Ghost, listens to Hamlet and keeps her distance from Claudius thereafter. The marked contrast between their heady, happy love, clearly expressed and reciprocated, prior to the Closet scene and the cool distance between them after it is striking.
This is an innocent Gertrude, who marries the man she loves not knowing what he has done. She is trapped when Hamlet and the Ghost enlighten her and thereafter is shaken. After Ophelia’s death, she is distraught, bedraggled – as if she had tried to rescue her from her watery end. And she dies because she will not listen anymore to Claudius and so his exhortation not to drink from the poisoned cup goes unheeded. Hamlet opens her eyes and seals her fate. Moodie is terrific in every way, providing a Gertrude who is her own woman, a completely rounded, stately and sensual character.
Natalie Simpson reimagines Ophelia in a remarkable, powerful performance. Gone is the wafting, winsome wailer. This Ophelia has sense and style, and a ferocity of spirit that matches her brother’s. (For the very first time, I wondered what Polonius’ wife had been like.) She stands up to Hamlet, physically and intellectually; she sees through his antic disposition, but does her duty to her father and keeps her distance. That bond, the bond between father and daughter, is what defines her.
This Ophelia rebuffs Hamlet when the Players perform. She fights him off when he pretends to force himself upon her as part of a show for the eavesdropping Claudius and Polonius. In a brilliant stroke, she appears in her slain father’s tunic after she starts to go mad and Simpson’s gentle, careful laying out of Polonius’ clothing is heart-breaking.
She pulls her own hair out, so shattered is her mind. Taking the strands apart, she distributes them as if they were herbs. In one stroke, Simpson underlines Ophelia’s insanity but reminds of the strength of character and fierceness of loyalty that pulsed prior to her father’s murder. Her silent, vacant walk across the horizon, to her fate, is deeply affecting.
Hiran Abeysekera is captivating as Horatio, the friend with a serious crush on Hamlet. He is as energetic and enthusiastic as any Horatio has been and the howl of pain he unleashes when Hamlet dies in his arms smashes the air from your lungs. It’s startling, unexpected, but makes complete sense. Abeysekera makes the Ghost scenes vital and genuinely creepy by his conviction and wholehearted sincerity; it’s the same with the tension in the Players’ scene and by Ophelia’s grave. An Horatio who is young and devoted to Hamlet helps centre the Prince and Abeysekera does not put a foot wrong.
Neither does Marcus Griffiths whose Laertes is virile, compelling and fiery. A descent from a helicopter seems completely logical for this bristling man of family and honour. His love for Polonius and Ophelia is his motivating factor and the final duel with Hamlet is electric – two bulls fighting over their territory. Griffiths shows Laertes to be blinded by his anger, but his final admission about Claudius’ treachery demonstrates his true, honest self re-surfacing. It is not just Hamlet’s family which ends that day in Elsinore, all because of Claudius. Griffiths really makes you feel that.
Cyril Niri is a delight as the dotty, fussy, servile Polonius. There is no hint of Machiavellian machinations about this Polonius, but nor is that necessary. Niri finds all the comedy, and he permits Essiedu’s Hamlet to befuddle and bemuse him. Kindliness and consideration shine from him, so his accidental slaying is actually awful. He is precisely the right Polonius for Clarence Smith’s Claudius. Smith concentrates his attention on the relationship with Moodie’s Gertrude and that colours everything. This is no calculating, ruthless power-seeker; this Claudius genuinely adores his wife and, it seems, his country. He is a calm, almost gentle, leader – which makes Hamlet’s railing against him all the more troubling. There may have been good reasons to rid the country of his brother; that certainly seems the implication here. And it’s no great stretch to see Hamlet as blind to the faults of his father when counting the sins of his Uncle. Looked at this way, and this seems a fresh Godwin insight, Claudius is trapped in a maelstrom of his own making just as Hamlet is. It’s a refreshing and interesting take on Claudius and it works very well with all of the central characters.
Doubling as troubled Ghost and jocular Gravedigger, Ewart James Walters is quite superb, and Kevin N Golding and Doreene Blackstock give vivid and full-blooded turns as the Player King and Queen. It’s a nice notion to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as young lovers caught up in espionage and James Cooney and Bethan Cullinane are solid performers who make their mark. (It’s interesting, too, to have roles often assigned to non-Caucasians played by white actors here: it works because of the African sensibility, but it also makes an acute observation about how theatre often treats casting choices). Romayne Andrews impresses as an unctuous Osric.
Paul Wills makes excellent use of the RST space and his design incorporates height and depth. During his antic disposition, Hamlet becomes graffiti mad, adopting a kind of Jean-Michel Basquiat persona, defacing official portraits and the thrones of power. It’s funny and makes for a visually interesting dynamic, especially in contrast to the more sedate, but impressive, hanging tapestries which evoke a sense of African heat and tradition elsewhere in Elsinore and the plain, modest environs of Polonius’ house. Costumes are superb, clearing establishing a pastel colonial empire feel and using more traditional garb for emphasis – most notably for the Ghost, who appears in tribal burial ritual attire. Paul Anderson’s lighting is subtle and effective and his work in the Ghost scene, in particular, pays real dividends. Sola Akingbola’s score is haunting and urgent, reflecting Hamlet’s state of mind.
The RSC has announced its seasons in London and unaccountably this production of Hamlet is not coming into the West End. It should. It is important as well as remarkable. It could take Shakespeare to an entirely new audience. To not transfer it is a missed opportunity, and demonstrates remarkably poor judgment from the RSC.
Never mind about the Nunnery – get thee to Stratford Upon Avon. This is not to be missed.